Leaders & Legacies: Cleve Carney, the man behind the museum and so much more

  • In early July, visitors to the Cleve Carney Museum of Art celebrate the birthday of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The Frida Kahlo Timeless Exhibit recently was extended to Sept. 12.

    In early July, visitors to the Cleve Carney Museum of Art celebrate the birthday of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The Frida Kahlo Timeless Exhibit recently was extended to Sept. 12. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Cleve Carney (June 21, 1939-July 31, 2013)

    Cleve Carney (June 21, 1939-July 31, 2013) Courtesy of Carney family

  • After graduating from Dartmouth, Cleve Carney joined the U.S. Navy, advancing to lieutenant junior grade.

    After graduating from Dartmouth, Cleve Carney joined the U.S. Navy, advancing to lieutenant junior grade. Courtesy of Carney family

  • DuPage Foundation's Leaders & Legacy series

    DuPage Foundation's Leaders & Legacy series

 
 
Posted8/18/2021 10:58 AM

DuPage Foundation is partnering with the Daily Herald to bring you this series celebrating the powerful role philanthropy plays in our community. Leaders & Legacies: Stories of Local Impact is a reoccurring feature highlighting the inspiring stories of local individuals, families and businesses that have made or are making a lasting impact through their generosity and leadership.

The series continues with Glen Ellyn resident Cleve Carney (June 21, 1939-July 31, 2013).

 

The Frida Kahlo Timeless Exhibit has put College of DuPage on the map. People are coming to DuPage County from all over the world to see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit by the iconic artist. It's impossible to imagine that anyone would be more pleased than the man for whom the museum was named, Cleve Carney.

In 2012, Cleve provided a seven-figure gift to College of DuPage to create the original art space that bears his name. At the time, it was the largest donation in the school's history.

A passionate art collector and philanthropist, Cleve Carney donated almost half of his art collection to establishing the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in Glen Ellyn.
A passionate art collector and philanthropist, Cleve Carney donated almost half of his art collection to establishing the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in Glen Ellyn. - Courtesy of Carney family

He followed his original contribution with the donation of 40% of his art collection, which was valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Cleve grew up in downtown Wheaton above his parents' bakery. He and his brother, former DuPage County Recorder Rick Carney, represent the sixth generation of their family to have lived in DuPage County. As a young man, Cleve excelled in everything he did. In 1957, he was class president during his senior year at Wheaton Community High School. He was an All-American swimmer during his time at Dartmouth, where he earned an economics degree in 1961.

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Cleve Carney served in the U.S. Navy on the underwater demolition team, known as "frogmen" in the early days.
Cleve Carney served in the U.S. Navy on the underwater demolition team, known as "frogmen" in the early days. - Courtesy of Carney family

Cleve later joined the U.S. Navy, serving in the underwater demolition team, an elite division of the Navy, out of Coronado, California. These "frogmen" teams would later come to be known as Navy SEALs. But his strong ties to DuPage County led him home.

Getting an MBA from the University of Chicago, Cleve went on to become a successful businessman and was actively involved in community affairs for many years. He co-owned Olsson Roofing with his Dartmouth buddy and longtime friend Bill Glenn. But a significant amount of his wealth came from his investment in community banks. That financial security allowed him to follow his passions, which were many. He was described by several friends as a Renaissance man who loved culture, travel, golf, good food and fine wine.

But most of all, Cleve was known for his love of contemporary art.

Cleve Carney, right, joins, from left, Emil Ludy, Brian Ebbert and Joe Bird in a day of golfing at the Chicago Golf Club.
Cleve Carney, right, joins, from left, Emil Ludy, Brian Ebbert and Joe Bird in a day of golfing at the Chicago Golf Club. - Courtesy of DuPage Foundation
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Cleve became a longtime member and past president of Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton. He also enjoyed live theater. His daughter said their trips to New York City would include as many as five shows within a few days, since they would see a matinee and an evening performance on the same day.

Cleve's love of art was evident to everyone who knew him, according to his close friend Mark Wight. Mark affectionately referred to Cleve as a "crazed art psycho" who covered every square inch of his home with contemporary art and encouraged his friends to do the same. Another close friend, Dick Cline, reminisced about Cleve's memorial service in 2013 where one person jokingly spoke of Cleve's mission in life to inspire his friends to collect art and bankrupt them in the process.

Cleve Carney congratulates Mary Eleanor Wall on receiving the Founder's Award at the 20th anniversary celebration of DuPage Foundation at Chicago Golf.
Cleve Carney congratulates Mary Eleanor Wall on receiving the Founder's Award at the 20th anniversary celebration of DuPage Foundation at Chicago Golf. - Courtesy of DuPage Foundation

Cleve was also on a mission to encourage philanthropy.

Another close friend of Cleve's, Mimi Rose, spoke of Cleve saying "Get out your checkbook, we're going to support such and such organization, which meant we were going to donate money to whatever it was that Cleve thought was a worthy cause."

His daughter, Jennifer Elling, said her father would always look at a donor list, or a donor plaque that might be displayed on a building or at an exhibit with the understanding those individuals set an example through their giving. And Cleve was determined to be one of those people. He encouraged giving and volunteering and he instilled that spirit in those around him.

Cleve served as the president of the board of trustees for DuPage Community Foundation (now known as DuPage Foundation). In the early days of the foundation, he began a dinner party at a local restaurant to support the organization. That dinner party has grown into an annual gala that has raised millions of dollars to benefit DuPage Foundation's grant making programs, which support nonprofits throughout DuPage County.

Cleve's love of culture extended to the performing arts as well, which led to an annual trip among his friends to the Stratford Festival in Canada featuring several Shakespeare productions. Cleve would also buy blocks of tickets to various productions in Chicago and give them to his friends. Cleve's daughter said her father was always going someplace and always traveled with a pack of people. He loved being part of a group.

Famously, he kept track of his nonstop trips, commitments, service activities, art shows and golf dates in a little red pocket calendar that always popped out of his shirt pocket when another invitation had been extended.

Cleve's love of art was simply one element of his philanthropy. He supported many local causes, including the Elmhurst Art Museum, B.R. Ryall YMCA, Central DuPage Hospital, The Conservation Foundation, Morton Arboretum, Wheaton Lions Club, and DuPage Foundation, among others.

Beyond providing financial support for local causes, he provided encouragement for aspiring artists, often purchasing their work.

World-renowned artist Tony Fitzpatrick first met Cleve when Tony was a teenager and worked as a caddie at Glen Oak Country Club. Cleve learned of Tony's interest in becoming an artist and not only bought him art supplies, but also bought some of Tony's earliest works of art.

Tony's work has been featured in numerous public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Tony has chosen to hold his final public showing at the Cleve Carney Art Museum following the Frida Kahlo exhibit. Tony credits Cleve's encouragement with his success as an artist and finds it only fitting that his career will have come full circle through his final public exhibit at an art museum bearing the name of the man who meant so much to his career.

Given Cleve's love of culture, it's hard to escape the irony of his life ending like a Greek tragedy. Cleve was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that ultimately left him dependent upon a wheelchair and unable to speak. His daughter spoke of his competitive spirit and his mantra, "Never give up!" And Cleve never gave up.

Cleve Carney greets his son-in-law and renowned jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and granddaughter Luiza Elling at the opening of the 2010 Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park. With help from aide Frank Sego, the avid art lover and theater lover could still get around.
Cleve Carney greets his son-in-law and renowned jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and granddaughter Luiza Elling at the opening of the 2010 Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park. With help from aide Frank Sego, the avid art lover and theater lover could still get around. - Courtesy of Carney family

Mark Wight reflected on Cleve's attitude toward his illness. "Cleve was the epitome of grace in the face of adversity. He never complained and he never hid his disability from the world. He was always upbeat and positive."

What may have seemed tragic was simply the hand Cleve was dealt. He was an inspiration and a pillar of strength all the way to the end.

Deepak Chopra once said that his definition of success is only one thing: joy. If you don't have joy, you don't have success.

Cleve would most likely include the importance of giving back as a measurement of success.

According to his daughter Jennifer Elling, Cleve Carney was determined to set an example through his generous giving and volunteering, encouraging that spirit in others around him.
According to his daughter Jennifer Elling, Cleve Carney was determined to set an example through his generous giving and volunteering, encouraging that spirit in others around him. - Courtesy of Carney family

There is no doubt that Cleve Carney lived a joyful and generous life and his encouragement of others to do the same has made an indelible impression on DuPage County.

Cleve passed away in 2013, but he is remembered by his family and friends and many of the nonprofits in DuPage County as a larger-than-life presence.

• The Leaders & Legacies series is brought to you by the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. Suggestions for future stories can be sent to Alice Wood, director of gift planning, at alice@dupagefoundation.org. Interested in learning more about how you can make an impact or create a legacy for your community and favorite causes? Visit www.dupagefoundation.org or call (630) 665-5556.

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